Ancient mystery religions and secret cults who worshipped little-known gods outside of more mainstream and official temples and practices. Their groups were so secretive that in many cases members were banned from discussing their practices and beliefs with people who were not also members. Because of this secrecy, many details about their practices and activities are now lost in time.
Ancient cults has served as a means for people to connect and express their religious beliefs. They often played a significant role in shaping the social, political, and cultural landscape of their societies.
Additionally, in terms of their historical significance, ancient cults provided valuable insights into the religious beliefs and practices of the past, and they can help us understand the cultural, social, and intellectual history of civilizations that is long gone.
Many experts believe that these cults ended with the rise of Christianity, their influence and practice can still be seen in the society’s widespread fascinations about the occult and secret societies. That’s why in this article, we are going to list down some strange and unusual ancient cults and some of the little things we know about them.
Cult of Cybele
Cybele, or also known as Magna Mater, from the ancient Indo-European people called Phygrians came to Greece around 5th century BCE. Cybele was believed to live on the mountaintops where she ruled over the natural world accompanied by lions. She is frequently portrayed holding a primitive tambourine which fits the rituals associated with her that often included loud music with frenzied dancing. Members of Cybele also took part in the taurobolium, a strange ritual where they slaughter an aggressive bull and initiates will position themselves below the bull and shower in its blood.
The cult of Attis was later added to the cult of Cybele. Attis was believed to be a mortal who snubbed Cybele’s romantic feelings and in return, he was punished with a madness that caused him to cut his own testicles and die. But Cybele eventually had a change of heart and appealed to Zeus to allow Attis to be resurrected. That’s why all the priest of Cybele during that era publicly performed testicle cutting with hopes that they are going to be reborn one day.
Cybele was originally a fertility-related deity of the ancient Turks who was later adopted by both Greece and Rome. She is seen being followed by an orgiastic procession, and her priests were known to participate in sensual or erotic rituals until they were forced to cut off their genitalia.
Some of her devotees would castrate themselves at that time and offer their blood on her altars. Romans, who valued vitality, had a negative opinion of this act. One slave was banished when he castrated himself. For the cult to thrive in Rome, a replacement was created; anyone who wanted to honor Cybele while maintaining their integrity could sacrifice a bull instead of castrating oneself.
Cult of Sabazios
Originated with the Thracians and Phrygians of Eastern Europe, the cult of Sabazios was known in Greece by the 5th Century BCE. Sabazios was often represented as a traveling horseman that was battling a serpent. Just like several gods that were worshipped by mystery cults, there are no other surviving myths that were related to him. Just a short historical reference which states that the members of his cult practiced ritual snake handling. Then the several mysterious metal sculptures called “hands of Sabazios” that has symbolic items that decorate the fingertips and the palm with lizards, frogs, snakes, pinecones, human figures, snakes, and lightning bolts.
These metal hands have been discovered all throughout Europe. The hands have three fingers outstretched in a blessing position, and a snake is wrapped around them. A lightning bolt flies across the index and middle fingers, while a pinecone rests on the thumb. Other bizarre pictures that may be found on the busy small sculptures include branches, turtles, and weighing scales. These motifs’ significance is not entirely clear.
Although little is known about Sabazios or how his devotees worshipped him, it appears that the metal hands made in his honor were paraded around attached to poles or handles. Therefore, Sabazios was a rather haughty deity.
Dionysus was believed to be the god of wine and he represented the primitive nature of humans. Dionysus was also believed to have power over death because he was resurrected by his father, Zeus after he was torn to pieces by titans. Just like any other mysteries, several details about his worship is still unknown, but some of their rituals were practiced publicly such as drunken orgies, sacrifices of animals using a double-headed ax, mixing and drinking of the animal’s blood mixed with wine, and playing instruments called bullroarers. Some of their weirdest rituals include an actual dismembering of a person who represents Dionysus with the hopes that he would be reborn.
Dionysus was often portrayed in a parade of satyrs and women who were wearing animal skins and ivy wrapped around their eyebrows while they are holding staffs that have pinecones on top.
All around the Greek world, he was honored with temples and shrines; every year in Athens, a festival featuring dramatic and comedic plays was held. Although it was a part of Greek custom, some people thought worshipping Dionysus is strange and uncivilized.
The god Dionysus and his ecstatic followers make an appearance on stage in Euripides’ drama – The Bacchae. His worshippers were rumored to dress up in furs, venture out into the countryside, and then break out into a fury. Worshippers were said to be insane in this irrational state. In the performance, female devotees of the god violently dismember a man using only their bare hands.
This is the most popular and longest-running mystery cults. The Eleusinian mysteries were devoted to worship the goddess Demeter who was thought to have given the agricultural gift to humans which brought them into civilized existence. The most famous myth that was associated with Demeter was when Hades kidnapped her daughter Persephone. While searching for her daughter, Demeter found herself in the ancient Greek city of Eleusis, and to the underworld. That’s why during that time, she failed to attend to the crops which caused the fall season. But when we emerged from the underworld along with her daughter Persephone, she was able to look after the crops again and ushered in the spring.
Each year, Demeter’s worshippers gathered at Eleusis to discover the secrets that would help them in the afterlife. Taking a solemn pledge to never disclose what transpired at the Eleusinian Mysteries was one of the procedures for celebrating them. Contrary to most promises, it appears that this was kept and honored because, as far as we are aware, no one revealed anything and we have little-to-no-knowledge of what happened during the rites.
It was said that the myth was acted out in ceremonies at Eleusis including the symbolic harvesting of grain. But others suspect that the ceremonies were done while the worshippers were under the influence of hallucinogens. During the 4th century CE, the Eleusinian mysteries were abolished by the Roman emperor Theodosius the Great.
Also known as Mithraic mysteries, this cult centered on the god Mithras who was popular for being worshipped by the Roman army as the protector of the empire. Unfortunately, there are no other myths about Mithras that survived. But the Mithraism cult started in the Roman world during the 1st century CE and everything we now know comes from the pictures in an underground temple-caves called Mithraeum. These images depicted Mithras stabbing a bull in the neck and meeting the sun.
These were the underground shrines where the followers of the god Mithras worshipped. There have been discovered around 200 of these Mithraeums, and at the center of several of them are statues depicting the god who was worshipped there as he was killing a bull. The centerpiece of Mithras rituals was an image known as a Tauroctony. The image of Mithras depicts a young man grabbing a bull by the nostrils and slicing it with a sword. A dog and a snake are hiding under the bull, as they were waiting to lick the blood.
Since this was a mystery cult, many aspects of the Mithras cult’s operations are still unknown. Despite the graphic imagery, there is no proof of actual bull slaughter at these locations. It appears that the cult members, who were all men and frequently in the military, gathered in the temples for group meals. As followers of the cult identified as syndexioi – “those connected by the handshake,” brotherhood appears to have been one of the key tenets of the worship of Mithras.